If there’s too much information thrown at me, is it OK for me to shut it all out and make up my own facts?
We are so inundated with information — solid or unreliable, biased or not — that a common emotional response to this overload is an inner collapse of logic and a complete surrender to whatever emotion soothes a hurt or riles us up. Our opinions are ours. And more and more, so are our facts.
I thought about that when I heard that basketball star Kyrie Irving, who went to renowned Duke University on a scholarship, believes the world is flat. Obviously, what a Cleveland Cavalier thinks about the shape of our planet is not important. But it got widespread attention because it seems indicative of a bigger issue these days: the decline of objective truth. We can’t agree on anything. And that lack of agreement is spreading like a virus, even into the shape of our planet.
I want to ask Irving: What about the moon, is it flat too? When we stare at the full moon, are we seeing the equivalent of a big pancake or pizza up there, something round and shallow? And where is the earth’s boundary — maybe an abyss just past Australia? And how does the water stay on a flat surface and not fall into space?
Of course, some of Irving’s fellow NBA players chimed in with support. They didn’t question him. Lebron James said if he wants to believe that, then that’s OK.
But that begs the question, does objective truth matter?
If not, then it should be OK for a referee to call all of Irving’s shots two-pointers, not three-pointers. You may think there’s proof that Irving was behind the three-point line, but what is truth anyway? If it’s all subjective, then the referee, and all referees, have every right to voice their opinions and discard verifiable facts. Who are we to judge their opinions with our silly rock-solid evidence, our foolish video footage and eyewitnesses?
This basketball analogy may seem dumb, but I think sports are a good tool here regarding objective truth. We are fiercely partisan in our sports allegiances. But we generally concede that objective truth is necessary for sports to function and avoid complete madness and riots. If a team scores 28 points and another finishes with 27, then the team with more points wins. If your player picks off a pass and clearly returns it for a touchdown, then your team scored and I can’t contest the fact. I may argue that a penalty should have been called, but I can’t argue that we didn’t just witness a score, that it was all somehow not objectively true that the player just picked off the pass and ran it back, that your eyes lied to you, idiot. It’s fight time then, right?
And obviously, I’m thinking of politics too, not just sports.
As Trump declares that the media is the “enemy of America” — of which I’m a part — I think of all the flaws of the press. And there are so, so many. I have written about them, and will continue to do that. I think I see far more flaws in the media than a lot of people, because I’m in the industry and thinking about this stuff constantly. So I’m not going to whine for the media. There are big problems. On the flip side, there is true brilliance, too. “The media” encompasses a vast array of people. There is real good and real bad. That’s a fact. It’s not all one or the other.
But what really troubles me is the feeling that there is a war, not on the media, but on the concept of objective truth.
Facts: Trump won the election. He is president. He has fierce support and fierce opposition. We all see that.
But do facts matter and does evidence matter anymore? Or, are we at a point where validity is entirely an issue of who says something, not the weight or merit of the evidence they present? For instance, when Trump says he had the biggest electoral victory since Reagan, that’s provably untrue. It’s also a completely unnecessary fallacy for an election winner. He was the winner, yes, but not the biggest since Reagan. Why repeatedly walk into such territory and then get so angry when called on it? Why pick a fight on things that are demonstrably untrue? There’s no need to make such an untrue statement, unless, of course, it’s this: He wants absolute loyalty to himself at the expense of objective truth. Many of his statements strike me this way, not as policy pronouncements, but as tests of loyalty. If I say it’s night, it’s night. If I say it’s day, it’s day. Don’t believe the “fake media.” Don’t believe the haters. Believe me, no matter what. But are facts purely team-based, not evidence based? Is that where we are?
If this is a strategy, it’s actually really effective in terms of establishing loyalty, because it requires a real emotional commitment to overlook these frequent casual dismissals of hard truth, and on the flip side, it’s utterly infuriating if you aren’t willing to give him the right to bend truth toward his own facts.
No doubt, it feels like we’re at war over the relevance of objective truth in modern America. This conflict goes far beyond “the man vs. the media.” This is a question at the heart of who we are. Facts matter. Or do they? We are so divided. We are like a country stumped on two plus two equals four. Both sides think the other side is irrationally screaming five. And we can’t accept their answer. We are like the fans of opposing teams who see the shot but can’t agree if the foot was in front of, or behind the three-point line. And all we seem capable of doing is screaming louder and louder, shouting down our opponents, as we clench our fists ready to fight.
We have to find a better path, a better way to defuse this cultural bomb before we walk off a fake flat earth into a very real and deep abyss.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
"are facts purely team-based, not evidence based? Is that where we are?"
Yes, and there is nothing new about that.
Science vs religion: Our policy of pampering those who refuse to accept even the most basic facts of life has morphed into a situation where all truths have become a matter of personal, or, group perspective.
That is where we are.
03/03/17 at 04:48 PM
Yes. Very good comment. We need a media……that REPORTS the facts and leaves their political views at home.
Darwin, who developed his theory of biological evolution, still believed that God was the ultimate lawgiver. That is a personal choice.
As Sergeant Friday would always say…"Just the facts"